Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Same Page

The Jewish Week, January 23 2001

I have an alter ego, a person whom I’ve never met whose life has been the mirror image of mine. I’m a rabbi/ journalist who’s just written my first book, about rediscovering family and seeking spirituality in cyberspace. He’s a journalist who also recently wrote his first book, about the rediscovery of family and seeking his own spiritual roots. Our first names are Joshua. I’m Hammerman and he’s Hammer. He writes for Newsweek. I used to dream of doing just that. Now, through an astonishing series of discoveries, I’ve found that, in so many other ways, we’re on the same page.

I’d been casually following my double’s life for a few years, ever since I first glimpsed his byline. When I saw it, I blinked in amazement, thinking it at first a misprint, then as an eerie reflection of my own double life. You see, twenty years ago, desperately needing to escape the mind-spinning esoterica of rabbinical school, I ditched the ivory tower a few nights a week and headed downtown to N.Y.U’s journalism program. By day I immersed myself in hair-splitting dialectic about the proper preparation of Matzah, and by night I covered the murder trial of Jean Harris and suicides at Rikers Island. I was living in two time zones, caught between the world as it is and the world as it ought to be. I loved it and dreamed both of becoming an influential religious leader and a globetrotting correspondent for Newsweek, sort of a Hunter Thompson meets Gandhi.

Then reality intervened. I completed both programs and had to decide: Would I be covering fires in Podunk (in the hopes of ending up back in New York), or training Bar Mitzvahs in Peekskill (in the hopes of ending up back in New York)? The rabbinate was the more comfortable option. My father, a cantor, had succeeded in the religion biz and had raised me to follow suit, although the choice ultimately was mine. To an extent, then, like any good Gore, Bush, or Griffey, my path was environmentally preordained.

It was one thing to see Hammer’s byline and laugh off the irony of his living out my journalistic dream. But about a year ago, when friends began to congratulate me on a book I hadn’t written, I decided to pick up a copy of Hammer’s memoir, began to read, and things got serious. I discovered that not only do we share nearly identical names, we have lived nearly identical lives. His autobiography held a mirror up to my own story, distorted slightly, but even then in analogous ways. We were born and became Bar Mitzvah months apart, went to Ivy League schools (Hammer to Princeton, Hammerman to Brown), and then entered the family business – his father was a journalist. In the early ‘80s we lived in Jerusalem at exactly the same time, frequented the same Old City hummos joints and encountered the same annoying Jewish evangelist at the Western Wall.

Hammer’s book chronicles his developing relationship with a very secular and rebellious brother, who became far more observant while in Israel and later moved to Muncie, N.Y. My sister followed a similar path, though she ended up on the West Bank. At the time we were all in Jerusalem, however, our siblings lived in the same quaint neighborhood, the tiny enclave of Nachlaot. I could well have bumped into my other self at the corner pita stand.

When I finished the book I thought about contacting Hammer to share some of these amazing coincidences. After a couple of half-hearted attempts to track him down, I gave up. What, after all, could I have said? “Hello, you’ve lived my life,” just didn’t seem appropriate.

Then, when my book came out several weeks ago, I proudly clicked onto to revel in my immortality. The book was there, but the author was listed as…Joshua Hammer. I emailed my publisher frantically and then started checking other book outlets on the Web. Barnes and Noble? Joshua Hammer. Borders? Joshua Hammer. For several days, the cyber-gods apparently had determined that the author of my book would be my alter ego. The mess was eventually cleared up; but then, three weeks later, it was Hammer Time again back at Amazon – this time with a twist: my name was there too, listed alongside. Hammer and Hammerman: the two Joshuas, on the same page at last.

I wondered how this might impact sales. What a novelty! Two authors, one name. If the co-author listed had been Stephen King, I might have let the matter rest. But this was getting ridiculous. I was beginning to wonder who I really am, when, as I was writing down these thoughts – and I kid you not – my refreshingly precocious 9-year old, Ethan, walked into the room, looked over my shoulder and asked, “Who is Joshua Hammer? Is he the same as you?”

Yes, I thought. He is the same as me. He journeyed where I might have gone, had not my upbringing conspired to steer me toward a different place. Yet, somehow, we ended up on the same street in Jerusalem and on the same Web page on Amazon, side by side, co-authors of a story not yet fully written.

With all that we’ve shared, Joshua Hammer has probably never heard of me (until someone sends him this article, I suppose). I’d love to meet him, but maybe it’s enough to know that our lives already have touched. I’m beginning to understand that we Joshuas are not the only ones living on Hammer Time. Inevitably, there are no degrees of separation. Ultimately, all parallel universes converge.

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